Uncomfortable Freedom: Donald Trump, Jacob Zuma, and Democracy

Written by: Laurette Marais The world is trying to make sense of the thought of Donald Trump as President of the United States. And it is struggling. Here is a man who cannot easily be described as flip-flopping, because that would require that he state and...

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Written by: Laurette Marais

the-white-house-1623005_960_720The world is trying to make sense of the thought of Donald Trump as President of the United States. And it is struggling.

Here is a man who cannot easily be described as flip-flopping, because that would require that he state and endorse two opposing positions clearly enough to constitute a flip, and he will now be the 45th President of the land of the free.

The media has already begun finding fault – with the electorate. Some are openly hostile, lamenting the victory of sexism, racism and all manner of ‘isms’ over supposed common sense, while others are more kindly in their patronising pieces on how poor dunces were forced by the system to vote for Trump because they did not know better. This is being followed by an onslaught of fact-checking and number crunching to determine where these vermin crept from their holes, and how a better system can keep them in check next time. We already seem to know that a college education made people much more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, and this is repeated knowingly and tragically as though that clears it all up.

In South Africa, this all feels eerily familiar.

We have a demagogue as a president who has been voted in twice by millions of people who have themselves been left far behind by the African National Congress’ cadre enrichment program. Jacob Zuma has danced and laughed his way through scandals that surely, surely ought to have sunk him by now. Why do South Africans still vote for the ANC, and why did Americans elect Donald Trump? Can they not see how they are electing the very people who have made a living of trampling all over them?

The answer, I believe, is to be found in the fact that humans are irreducibly complex beings possessing something that nothing else does: a will, a heart, a soul. People cannot be reduced to data points or sets of properties, but are multi-faceted beings living as mothers, husbands, teachers, construction workers, professors, friends, neighbours, philosophers, clowns, and countless other things. Though statistical analysis might give some insight into the behaviour of groups of people, statistics work best when your data points do not yearn: for love, for freedom, for fullfillment, for revenge.

People care about facts, yes, but they tend to care most about the facts that are immediately relevant to their lives. And how are we to know whether that means affording rent or stopping babies being murdered or making America great again, or all, or none of the above, or something else that can hardly be put into words? (By no-one, let alone pollsters with questionnaires.) Statistics, by its nature, is reductionist. That is the fatal flaw when it comes to doing maths about humans.

In reality, democracy hinges on a very uncomfortable and profoundly ideological premise: that the will of the people, somehow, ultimately, is better than the will of any configuration of the privileged few. When put like that, we would all agree. But there is something hidden there that seems to be overlooked in recent times: better – in what way? Better for the economy? Better for housing or basic service delivery? Better for job security?

No. Better for freedom. Democracy in its modern form, values the ability of ordinary people to choose their government as a higher good, than whether a government governs “well” according to some set of markers. This is a dangerous premise, as countless career politicians have learnt and power-hungry scoundrels instinctively know. (Some are the embodiment of both, and have recently received their just deserts for underestimating this brute fact and trying to find a way around it.) Democracy values freedom above comfort and safety and even food on the table.

Ah, but that’s exactly the problem, you say. We should make basic rights and freedoms part of these markers of a “good” government. Yes, the more liberties a government protects, the better it is for freedom, and a government that tramples on liberties is obviously worse. But this is a category error, because a government that derives its authority from anything other than the will of the people to govern may graciously protect all kinds of liberties – it may even afford more liberties than some given democratically-elected government – and yet it will be fundamentally authoritarian. In such a system, all rights and liberties are bestowed on ordinary people as favours by a privileged few. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain a world of comforts, and lose his own freedom?

I will admit that the fundamental freedom to choose a government does not, in the real world, function independently from basic rights and liberties. By no merit of my own, I cannot know how much freedom matters to someone who is hungry every day. In the end, however, democracy is the assertion that it is more valuable to be free to choose a “bad” government than it is to live comfortably under a “good” authoritarian regime. I can only speculate as to why people keep voting for the ANC and for people like Donald Trump, but their freedom to do so is the very heart and soul of democracy.

Author: Laurette Marais is a wife, a mother and a PhD student in computer science.

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  1. Rory Short Reply

    ” In the end, however, democracy is the assertion that it is more
    valuable to be free to choose a “bad” government than it is to live
    comfortably under a “good” authoritarian regime.”

    I agree completely with the above because freedom is the very essence of human life. Freedom for the individual is only fully realised however when the person is able assume full responsibility for themselves and their actions. This capacity exists in all of us but its blossoming has to be nurtured otherwise it might never manifest. The more individuals in a society manifest this capacity the healthier that society is.

    As a society our constitution is confused in this regard. On the one hand it tries to ensure that conditions that make it more difficult to assume full responsibility for yourself and your actions are minimised, e.g. guaranteeing freedom of expression, freedom of religion, etc. whilst on the other hand it opens the way to treating some people as in need of of special crutches, crutches such as AA and BEE etc., because of what happened to their group under Apartheid. In its efforts to allow for the affirmation of the humanity of these people it is allowing for the exact opposite to happen. The expression of the humanity of NO ONE needs to be supported by crutches of any kind, all that is needed is, 1. the encouragement to assume full responsibility for yourself and your actions, and 2. the opportunities in life to do so, and 3. along with the expectation that you will do so.

  2. Steven van Staden Reply

    Thank you for an insightful and thought-provoking article.

    The Americans certainly had ‘small choice in rotten apples’ and I suspect that many who voted for Trump did so fearful of the decline of the American way of life which they see being undermined by government tolerance of an increasingly assertive threat from within their own borders. It appears that ordinary intelligent people are naturally becoming intolerant of this failure of general cultural integration and of seeing their home-culture, liberalism, tolerance, empathy, compassion and goodwill disrespected, unreciprocated and not only irreconcilable with, but threatened by a rapidly-growing alien mentality.

    This seems to acknowledge the real danger of accommodating ever-growing and increasingly assertive and wilfully incompatible cultures which by their rough and forceful nature and the rampant growth of their adherents are bound to squash that which accommodated and tolerated them. It seems to me that this is a difficulty being experienced in many Western nations where untempered liberalism is seen to be turning on itself and bringing about its own demise. A tenuous liberal optimism, tolerance and patience seems to be coming to an end, and not without just cause. Liberalism will have to guard against its demise in the face of threats which have taken advantage of both its strengths and weaknesses.

    Are the fears expressed in the Brexit vote and the Trump victory at least in part the same fears that gave rise to the very un-liberal and extreme systems of racial oppression of which South Africa was the last white bastion? As though to justify those fears, in South Africa today it is hard to witness the so-called Eurocentric culture denigrated and threatened by its enemies who at the same time clearly recognise its benefits as the obvious means to its coveted fruits. It is also necessary to record that, as forecast, minority rights in South Africa have recently come under their greatest threat since minority rule ended.

    The culture clash and the threat to democracy, in S. Africa and the other countries facing this dilemma, are compounded by more than a fair share of politicians and leaders who have no interest in accommodating the differences that liberal democracies have tolerated to a fault. On the contrary, these leaders, of whom Cyril Ramaphosa is one of the moderates and Julius Malema one of the lunatic fringe, seize upon group similarities and group differences to exaggerate and further widen and entrench cultural divisions. Depersonalising individuals and typecasting them as faceless members of an enemy group to be reviled is common in their speeches. Whites are now “visitors” in the land of our birth. All this in the interest of fomenting hostility between groups towards self-serving political ends, in the sharpest contrast to the multi-cultural tolerance and accommodation attempted and failing in more developed countries where the same breed of demagogues are bent on fomenting its collapse together with the liberal democratic ideals we should be aspiring to.

    No wonder we are saddled with Trump and Zuma.

    (Written spontaneously in great haste with distractions and posted with apologies for any errors of judgement.)

  3. Altus Pienaar Reply

    The irony is that people were voting for food on the table. This is exactly the reason why Trump was elected and why the support for the ANC is still standing strong. The average worker of America gave their support to Trump because they were tired of the old regime of Bush and Obama, and Hillary promised to give them some more of the same thing. Look at Greenspan’s blatant manipulation of the work environment to help keep wages at an all time low. People are tired of the manipulation and the suffering they had to endure.
    For the poor and the destitute these people like Trump, represent in their minds the freedom from the previously exploitative regimes and they will hold on the that because there is no one else!

    Our problems does not stem from the current democratic process though, but rather from a lack of democracy in the work place.
    An economic democracy will naturally bring about greater political democracy as it will root out corporate manipulation of government processes and our political leaders.
    We need to stop looking for the fault in our political system and in our political democratic process and we must scrutinize the economic model which is built on a totalitarian system ruled by corporate dictators.

    We need to build an economy build on the principles of democracy in the work place. Without this we will be at the whim of a handful of capitalist oligarchs whose interests only go as far as the profit earnings of their business interests…..until the day they would have destroyed the biosphere in the process and we would be their accomplices for not putting a stop this madness.
    We created Trump….and Gates and Jobs and many others like them. We hail them as gods and we revere them and aspire to be like them, we support their business models, we support their exploitation of their own workers but mostly we help them help to destroy this planet.

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